I’m a morning devotional kind of person. You know, those little books you see on people’s coffee tables? I’ve gone through several over the years, but currently my tabletops host Our Daily Bread and Oswald Chambers “My Utmost for His Highest.”
These books were once forbidden to me as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses since the Watchtower dictates that their members only read their publications, one of which is a daily devotional called “Examining the Scriptures Daily.” I followed their program of reading their daily text, but was getting increasingly angry and depressed within the walls of that religion. And so I took a risk and picked up a devotional from a local thrift store because it’s title sounded more helpful than theirs. The booklet was called “How To Have a Good Day Every Day” by Norman Vincent Peale. The contents revealed 7 vital steps in re-focusing my mind each morning to look on the bright side. When you’re constantly fed pictures and words of an impending doomsday, that’s kind of appealing.
The side notes I penned in the book explain my struggle. On the very first page I wrote,
Stresses to be shunned: making distinctions between us/them “worldly.”
God loved the world! Too much emphasis on shining the outside of the cup.
Avoid leaven (Mark 8:15, Matt 16:12)
These were areas of pain for me in the Watchtower. Deep down inside I knew the constant training of elevating myself above all others was having a negative effect on my mind, so I took the risk and began my 7 step journey with this little forbidden devotional to see if I could find some peace. As I committed in secret to reading that little book, my attitude began to change. Strengthened to love instead of judge, I offered my thrift store treasure to another depressed sister after she asked how I could have such a positive attitude through the same hardships she was crumbling under in our Kingdom Hall. I began to relate the Scriptures that helped me and read them from the little devotional, but when she saw that it was not published by the Watchtower Society she drew back in fear. I pointed out that all the Scriptures could be validated in the New World Translation and noted the evidence of my own faith still in tact, but her flat reply was that I’d better not let the elders catch me reading it. This is typical of those trained to believe that happiness exists only for those who strictly obey their own religion’s authority. Meanwhile, I was learning to renew my mind by following the 7 steps outlined in the devotional.
1. How To Wake Up Creatively
2. Conditioning The Mind For a Good Day Every Day
3. I Am Going to Like People Today and Every Day
4. Keeping Emotions Under Control Every Day
5. Spiritual Opportunities in Routine Activities
6. Aids in Feeling Healthy Today and Every Day
7. The Important Final Moments of a Good Day
The little 32 page devotional became marked up with side notes and underlining. And the Spirit of Liberty was alongside me winning in the journey that would take another 4 years before I could physically leave the cult. It would be another few years before my mind cleared completely of its control. But it’s noteworthy that the process began with a RISK that focusing my attention on something positive actually mattered. Beginnings matter. This little thrift store find was only a beginning, but there were many battles yet ahead. I went on to confront my enemies and tangle with the doctrines they had used to bind me. I lost friends in the process. Years later I took another risk and trusted a forbidden person to help me along the way. Finally, I took the greatest risk of dying to myself as I confessed my sin before God. The sin of idolatry in making religion a god instead of receiving the free gift of mercy and love — a love I had been hungering for all along. Renewed by grace, I wake up now thanking God every day without need of that devotional’s reminders.
It’s been about 20 years since I first risked buying that little Norman Vincent Peale devotional. I no longer rely on it for daily reading, but I do pick it up from time to time and remember how it shed some light into my desperate soul when the Watchtower’s darkness enveloped me.
In the side notes there’s a reference to Romans 6:19 with a reminder to myself to “present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. Therefore, I offer myself to study, to prayer, to blessing others, and thanksgiving, charity, hospitality.” Evidently, I had gotten the message that these things were part of “how to have a good day every day.” My freedom and sanctification came through a risky decision to devote myself to those activities in a personal way even as I served within the Watchtower. And it eventually got me disfellowshipped. No, nobody turned me in with my little devotional, it’s just that as I sought to bless others with genuine Christian love within the congregation, the presiding overseer noticed I was “talking too much about Jesus” and thought it better for me to “look out for number one” and tally up hours in the door-to-door distribution of Watchtower magazines instead of encouraging depressed souls in the congregation. The power of Positive Thinking wasn’t too well received in the Watchtower.
Norman Vincent Peale is listed by some as a “word of faith” teacher and well, quite frankly that is exactly what I needed at the time when all I had was a religion of works. I do not idolize Norman Vincent Peale nor have I read anything by him beyond that little devotional, but I can truthfully say his perspective played a part in refreshing my attitude and helping me to lean toward faith in Christ rather than my own works even though “renewing my mind” was the “work” I was endeavoring to do through that devotional. I’ve heard other former Jehovah’s Witnesses credit Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and other controversial figures who have helped them in their transition. Yet, you can barely mention those names in a discussion group before some self proclaimed apologist pounces on them with a litany of offenses by them as aberrant teachers.
Yes, I understand the need to contend for the faith and be aware of those who derail from the purity of the gospel, but what if we tried to listen to the person’s journey instead of impressing them with research about who’s a true Christian and who’s not? I find such arguments do little to build faith but run a greater risk of keeping that person in the same black and white, judgmental mentality learned from their former religion. Instead of separating everyone into categories of Jehovah’s Witnesses and “worldly” they simply learn to group them into “true” Christians and false ones spending more time in research for that rather than taking a risk to draw near to God.
It’s sad to me that even mentioning the name of Norman Vincent Peale in a positive light here is a risk knowing that we may receive some negative emails from readers because of it. For the record, I will never return to the Watchtower but I am grateful for the time I spent there and still consider it a necessary part of my faith journey. Yes, I credit a cult and it’s false teachers as helping me be the Christian I am today. I would not appreciate grace, if God had not allowed my sin to fully surface through that journey of trying to live within the religion of works I had freely chosen. And that experience causes me to question whether another person’s time spent in the teaching of someone considered a false teacher by the masses is not in some way beneficial also? Through experiencing the emptiness and falsehood of religion, I was enabled to move beyond the doctrines of men and into a relationship with Christ that is no longer dependent upon what church I attend or what teacher I prefer. And quite frankly, the people I avoid most are the religious heresy hunters who haunt the discussion groups, YouTube channels, and local churches informing everyone who’s a “true” Christian and who’s not. Though I too have my personal opinions and carry an unseen list in my head of who I consider true or false, I hope to never present myself as a devout religionist always defending my “truth” while giving no consideration to what others have to offer from their own journey.
If you are sincere in your faith, you know what a difficult balancing act that is. Though I am satisfied in the truth of Jesus, I think it’s safe to say I’ll never fit into the “group think” of organized religion. I’m too drawn to listening to the raw hearts of those willing to accept that they don’t have it all figured out yet but are seeking peace with their Creator. Oddly enough, that is often found through much hardship, trial and error, and not by having some “expert” dictate to you where the “right” church is.
I’ve taken the risk of having my own relationship with God free from the expectations of others — whether they be atheist or Christian. This is how I’ve learned to have a good day every day.
Keep yourself in God’s love,
As a counter-cult ministry, we value biblical discernment and strongly appreciate those “apologists” who bear the “warning cry” when false teachers infiltrate the flock of God with their un-biblical views. We take a strong stance on the authority of God’s Word in the Bible. In no way is Julie’s article intended to disparage well-meaning Christian apologists who seek to maintain purity in spiritual teachings promoted both in Christian groups and on the Internet.
However, we feel that caution is needed when approaching someone who has recently come out of cult and is starting to open their mind to listening to some of these more aberrant teachers. As the cult group was geared to contrast what they taught was “the truth” against the outside world “untruth,” the former group member’s world in the cult was sharply divided against “safe” and “unsafe” thinking. So, when that person who has left the cult is taking his or her first step out by listening to what was formerly viewed as “unsafe” thinking, an over zealous apologist can easily trigger their cult fears and send them back into the closed-minded views of their former religion/cult by criticizing their “new teacher” too soon. Thus, much grace and sensitivity is needed to help former cult members who have been wounded by the rigidness of their past religion, learn how to apply the discernment thinking needed to evaluate the teachings of a particular new spiritual leader before they are able to handle direct criticism about that leader.
It is important to realize that every teacher has error so we should listen with an open mind, but evaluate everything we hear according to the Word of God. That is the only way to stay on the true path. With this advice, we do not have to be afraid to listen and gain insights from even questionable teachers, but if we are aware of their errors, it is easier to know what to be on guard against in their teachings.
As Scripture states: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28, NASB). He uses even the bad influences in our lives to help us cling to Him. That doesn’t mean that we purposely seek out bad teaching. It means that we simply take what can be validated by Scripture and discard the rest.